ESPN’s Zach Lowe and Adrian Wojnarowski reported last week that the NBA is considering some major changes to its schedule. Namely a Conference Finals re-seeding, an in-season tournament, and postseason play-in games.
I’d like to add one more suggestion to the mix: adopt a “challenge round” from the Southern Professional Hockey League — let the top three seeds in each conference choose their first round opponent.
Seeding battles become more meaningful
The most obvious advantage to this change would be adding some additional meaning to the seeding battles at the top of the playoff hunt. In the era of load management, teams aren’t as inclined to jockey for the top seeds once they have home-court in the first round locked up.
We saw this last year when the Blazers rested basically their entire roster in game 82. Anfernee Simons bailed them out but it was clear the organization was not particularly concerned about the distinction between a 3-seed and a 4-seed.
Giving teams the option to choose their opponent could add some extra motivation that leads to more intense regular season games down the stretch.
Drama is fun
It’s been noted that what happens off the court in the NBA has become almost as fun as what happens on the court. From the Clippers barricading DeAndre Jordan into his house, to Jimmy Butler reportedly breaking the Timberwolves’ spirits in a practice scrimmage, to Daryl Morey somehow inciting an international incident with a tweet, fans can’t get enough of #thisleague.
A challenge round would only increase the drama quotient. Imagine, for example, the Blazers finishing in the bottom half of the playoff bracket with the Nuggets in the top half. Denver looks at the matchups and decides they want Portland in round one because they trust their depth far more than Mario Hezonja and Anthony Tolliver. Last year’s game seven be damned.
The drama of Damian Lillard and company reacting to that slight, perceived or otherwise, could fuel headlines for a week. And the on-court fireworks would take on a whole other level of symbolism. There’s no downside here!
A challenge round also helps alleviate the inherent disadvantage the west coast NBA teams face. Bouncing back and forth between, say, Oakland and Minnesota while two Texas teams fly between San Antonio and Houston sucks.
As a Blazers fan, I’m all for a scenario that lets a high-seed Blazers team say “you know what, we’d rather fly to Sacramento and stay in our own time zone than deal with a trip to Memphis.”
Re-seeding in round two?
If the NBA did adopt a challenge round they’d have to figure out what to do about the second round of the playoffs. There’s potential for some uneven seeding matchups if they continue with a straight bracket. I’m not sure if it would matter though. Something like a 1/6 and 2/5 second round created by a couple upsets is no weirder than some of the other matchups that can pop up with an upset or two under the pre-existing seeding. There’s also the even wackier alternative of letting the top remaining seed choose its second round opponent, as well.
What about the other proposals
In-season tournament: The format needs to be worked out but this is a good idea. With 30 NBA teams the vast majority of fans don’t have much hope for the end-of-season trophy. Adding another ring to grab doesn’t hurt anything and makes things more interesting during the season. Go for it. I especially like the idea of guaranteeing the overall champion an automatic playoff spot and a first round bye.
Conference Finals re-seeding: This proposal creates more compelling Finals match-ups which is also good. After slogging through 82 games it should be possible for the best two teams in the NBA to meet in the Finals, even if they share a conference. I wouldn’t extend this to other rounds because of schedule and travel issues (e.g. nobody wants a 4:00 playoff game tip-off or four consecutive cross-country flights in the first round).
Playoff play-in: The NBA mini-series of the ‘70s between the 3/6 and 4/5 seeds yielded some great games and there’s a March Madness vibe here. Bring back something similar.
The NBA season is long and full of terrorible Tuesday night games in January. Reducing the number of games to increase the impact of the regular season isn’t going to happen for revenue reasons, presumably, so adding anything to the mix that increases the fun factor is a bonus. In-season tournaments, All-star drafts, a “challenge round” — add them all!